Be The Best Writer You Can

How Important is Story for Screenwriters?

powerful stories

I can’t remember the last time I read a novel.

I read many factual books as background to my writing, but nowadays I read perhaps one or two novels a year.

Shocking? Maybe.

To give you some context, I started reading when I was four or five, before I was in full time school.

I remember the exact moment the funny marks on the page started to make sense. (I was sitting on my fathers’ knee and looking at the pictures in a Ladybird book about a robin, when suddenly it all clicked and I found that miraculously I could read the entire thing aloud.)

A SERIOUS HABIT

I soon acquired a serious reading habit. My parents had a big book shelf, and there was a public library round the corner which I loved to visit. I quickly realised books could be hellishly exciting.

Just now I particularly remember Sunday nights, reading E Nesbit by torchlight under the bed covers, desperate to get to the end of the chapter before sleep took over – and though I was exhausted, feeling I just had to read another chapter, then just one more.

Anything would do, it all went in, from Sherlock Holmes to Spiderman, the grown up glamour and sex of James Bond and Dick Francis all the way back to Noddy, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe.

FEEDING THE ADDICTION

Then in my teens onto Tolkien, Bradbury, Moorcock, Heinlein, Shelley, Hesse, Joyce, Shakespeare, Forster, Kerouac, Mann, Marquez… on and on. All the familiar, popular, mainstream names – all the familiar, popular, mainstream names that have become so familiar, popular, and mainstream because they reliably deliver a quality reading experience to millions of people over many decades.

I read English Literature at university. Mainly poetry by then.

The Anglo Saxon poets (in the original Anglo Saxon) Langland, Chaucer, Dryden, Coleridge, Browning, Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Plath – and finally getting to modern drama via the middle 20 century British dramatists – Wesker, Arden, Pinter, Osbourne…

Even when I joined the world of grown up work, and I had jobs in various software houses, I kept reading.

DO READERS MISS OUT?

Whether reading SO much is a good thing or not is, frankly, debatable.

All those years spent exploring fictional worlds – what about the REAL world? All those years addicted to keeping my body still and letting my mind wander – what other, more physical, less cerebral experiences did I miss?

Si Spencer, Screenwriting Goldmine script consultant extraordinaire, has a fascinating blog about why he personally found reading positively destructive. (He’s called it ‘The Case for Book Burning‘. I believe it’s only slightly tongue in cheek.)

For good or for bad, from ages 5 to 33 reading was one of THE main pleasures of my life.

THE ADDICTION MUTATED

And then I got a job in TV, and my fiction reading dried up within a year or so.

Now I read one or two pieces of fiction a year. (The last one was ‘That Summer’, by Andrew Greig. If you want a very moving love story set against the Battle of Britain you should try it. It’s very good. )

The rest of the time my hunger for story is fed by the screen.

When I start a TV show I HAVE to finish it – so DVD box sets are incredible for that.

(That feeling of ‘just another episode’ although it’s 3 am..

Takes me right back to E Nesbitt by torchlight.)

SO WHY STOP READING?

too much reading

Einstein, clearly unconvinced of the benefits of a good detective yarn.

Why did I give up reading?

Why does any addict quit? Who knows, really.

I do have a few ideas though.

I think I prefer moving pictures to static words because I’ve mostly always read for the thrill of the story.

I’ve always found experimental wordplay suspect. Or even, frankly, dull. (I loved ‘Dubliners’, not ‘Ulysses’, and Virginia Woolf, never darken my bookshelf again)

If your movie is going to travel, or your TV show is going to get commissioned, you must deliver a story. More than poetry and theatre, more than radio drama, more than many forms of the novel, movies and TV are THE place where story rules.

But more than that. In my mid thirties I became hell-bent on becoming a screenwriter. And to do that I had to make certain deep alterations to the way I thought.

STORY RULES

einstein

Einstein looking fabulous

Story has very little to do with the exact words used to deliver it. Story exists off the page, is something that can be told and retold, so the script is basically a discardable document.

What’s more, in a novel you can go all over the place. You can take fifty pages to go inside a character’s head and describe a tea-cake if you like.

Voice over will give you a little interior life, but not so much.

On screen you only have what a character chooses to do, or not do, and what they say, or don’t say.

So it perhaps isn’t surprising that after a year or so working on screenplays while being trained as a script editor I became more and more impatient with many novels.

I’d find the experience of reading became one of flicking faster and faster through the pages, more and more impatient with the beautiful words, basically looking for who does what to whom.

I’d start reading, but pretty soon start thinking “OK, this is the guy, flick forward to where he actually does something, flick, flick, then he does this, flick, this happens, then this happens, then there’s fifteen pages of this fancy wordy stuff where he thinks a lot of clever sweet stuff but nothing much actually HAPPENS, flick flick flick, oh, man this is a boring book-!”

That was an amazing change, but one that was necessary for me to become a screenwriter.

Literary talent is ten a penny. Story talent is incredibly rare. That’s why screenwriters who can tell a good, gripping, moving story, in a spare, stripped down style, that will all fit into an hour or so, are valued so highly.

ALAN YENTOB HAS A WORD

When I joined the BBC the drama department was going through some time of crisis. Cutbacks, temporary controllers, low morale. The BBC being the BBC, they sent over Alan Yentob to reassure us. I was amazed to hear him declaim that the BBC had faith in us, needed us, that the drama department was the engine room of the BBC.

Alan Yentob

Alan Yentob: big on words

And yet, nearly 20 years later, I can see that it wasn’t all just rabble rousing, that actually he has a point.

Look at the ratings on any week of the year. The TV schedules at mostly held up by drama, which is mostly extended story telling a.k.a. soap.

The reason so many people want so much story is pretty interesting, and it is to do with how story makes sense of the world.

Raw day to day experience is often confusing, painful. It can leave us with a feeling of meaninglessness, a feeling of ‘So-what?’ and ‘None of it matters anyway’ – which can lead to bad, even destructive habits.

As a writer – and a screenwriter especially – you can employ the most powerful tool known to humans for bringing sense to a mad, mad world:

When you’re experiencing a story you’re constantly learning stuff.

- ‘This is why this bad stuff happens. And this is what it means…’

- ‘If you get attacked like THIS then this is how you defend yourself…’

- ‘You want that to happen? Then you have to do all this to get there..’

- ‘If you live your life like THIS, then these are the consequences…’

THE NUCLEAR OPTION

Creating those stories is a lot of fun.

The corollary is that I believe as a writer you also have a duty.

I believe that writers should write stories that tell the truth as they see it, that come from a firmly held moral stance.

It’s not always easy, or possible to live by that. The difficulties of making a living as a writer mean you can find yourself writing stuff just to feed yourself or your kids.

But as a writer you’re holding some pretty powerful tools for messing with people’s world views. As a screenwriter with a faithful audience of millions you are handling the cerebral equivalent of a nuclear powerplant.

If you get it right you’ll be able to tell it like is is for millions of people over many decades.

If you get it wrong..?

That is an astonishing power – and an equally astonishing responsibility.

I sort of miss novels – but not very much: I’ve found the moving image. In some of the movies created since the 1930s, and in some of big multi-season TV shows created since the 1950s, I’ve found some of the biggest, most complex, most satisfying story experiences I think I’m ever likely to experience.

Any other recovering addicts out there?

THE TWO PHILS SCRIPT WRITING WORKSHOPS

Speaking of the primacy of moving pictures over words, if you’ve ever wondered what our weekend workshops are like, you could have a look at couple of the videos we grabbed at our last Screenwriting Workshop in London.

Midway through the second day I cornered some of the writers who were attending and they gave us their thoughts on the show so far.

Here’s Jane now:



You can watch more writers talking about the workshop here.

And bear in mind, the last Two Phils seminar until the Autumn takes place at the end of July – book now here.

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2 Comments
  1. And there was me shamefully guarding the same secret for years… Thanks so much for giving me the courage to come out of the closet and say: “I used to love reading novels but I don’t have the patience anymore.” Believe me, I do try from time to time, but I too become restless and distracted by the lack of ‘things happening,’ the endless wading in characterization. What I do take away from prose though, is the odd turn of phrase or snippet of description that articulates something I’ve been trying to nail. Non-fiction is definitely my thing these days, and has been for some years now. I find it intellectually more stimulating and it’s full of thematic ideas that go beyond the usual melodramatic, relationship repertoire in novels. Having said that, a good screenplay also needs a strong, conflict-ridden relationship at its core… Cheers, Dave.

  2. Hi Dave – interesting non-fiction point – I agree in many ways. And TV documentary is particularly strong at the moment too.

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